20 December 2007

Lyon in Winter: A Travelogue

The Presqu’île, viewed from the opposite bank of the Rhône

Taking pictures is like playing piano: one day I mean to get serious and really learn how to do this. Instead, I never rise above the level of embarrassment. The intimidation factor is high, since I know so many professional musicians — for example, one does not watch Scott Frankel play piano and then say, “Oh, I could do that.” And it seems that almost everybody I know is a gifted photographer, from Guido Organschi to Will Wissemann, from Catherine Karnow to Jacques Torregano. And what is the point of learning to do something if you know in advance that you will never be better at it than all your friends? As long as you will always be inferior, you may as well remain untrained and unpracticed: at least you will have an excuse.

Nevertheless, I expose myself to scrutiny now by presenting a few snapshots in the hope of conveying the charm of the city of Lyon, from which I have just returned. I’m really smitten with the place, and since I can’t serve you heaping portions of quenelles, charcuterie, and Côtes du Rhône, these images are the best illustrations I’ve got. Faute de mieux.

“All of Gaul is divided into three parts,” Julius Caesar wrote, and Lyon was the Roman capital of Gaul. And a very prosperous, lively capital at that. The city is crammed with marble ruins, and it seems that you can’t dig a ditch without discovering priceless artifacts. On the steep hill of Fourvière, the Gallo-Roman museum sits amid the remains of the ancient Odeon and Amphitheater, the latter so well preserved that archaeologists were able, after countless generations of wondering, to figure out precisely how the Romans worked their stage curtains. The answer: a system of pulleys and weights raised the curtain up from the stage.

The Amphitheater is still in use, after a bit of modern-day refurbishment, and plays and concerts are presented there in warm weather. (The weather was emphatically not warm this week!)

The Museum itself is built into the hillside, and its galleries descend in a long spiral; its few windows resemble portals on the Starship Enterprise. The ancient Lyonnais seem to have needed only about ten minutes of Roman rule before mastering all the Empire’s arts, and many of the best statues and mosaics, random bits of pottery and glassware are displayed in almost pristine condition. The Emperor Claudius was born here, and later in life he returned to Lyon to deliver a speech: the city gratefully engraved the whole text on two brass plaques. Only the bottom portions of the plaques survived intact, but they’re on display, in tribute to Claudius’ striking lack of talent as a speechwriter.

Though the locals seem to have adopted every Roman custom, Lyon is awfully good at resistance, and the first real demonstration of this came with the early Christians, who were executed by the hundreds, yet kept on believing. One lady appeared to have thwarted the Romans when the lions at the circus refused to eat her; but the centurions found a sword and slit her throat. She’s now a saint, Blandine.

Generations later, Lyon resisted the French Revolution, and again thousands of citizens were executed. The guillotine was kept so busy that at one point word was sent to Paris: “Lyon is no more.” An overstatement — although the name of Lyon was stricken from the maps and the city was officially renamed during the Terror. [See note below.] During World War II, Lyon was an important base in the French Resistance, and scene of some of the war’s more notable acts of bravery.

But Lyon’s heyday was the Renaissance, when a booming silk industry made it one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. Big fairs guaranteed a brisk trade not only in goods but in ideas, and Lyon was a center of publishing, as well: Rabelais, who lived here for a time, published his Gargantua and Pantagruel here, to be sold at the fair. An entire neighborhood along the banks of the Saône boasts narrow cobbled streets of original Medieval and Renaissance structures, built tall to catch daylight in the bustling workshops. They’re beautifully preserved, and full of bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurant. The word also means “wine cork,” and the local wines, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône, flow freely. You will eat pretty much what Gargantua would eat, and in comparable portions. Every bouchon serves precisely the same dishes, it seems: lots of regional sausages, tripe, chicken-liver gâteaux, occasionally a rabbit or fish (besides the quenelles that purportedly are made from pike, though you’d never know it).

The streets of Vieux Lyon are so picturesque that you could spend weeks taking photographs, though they’re also so narrow that it’s hard to get the angle you want. Seeing the place, you wonder why the folks at Disney thought it was good idea to put a theme park in this country, that already has so many castles and storybook houses.

Vieux Lyon is anchored by the Cathedral of Saint Jean, adjacent to the site of an even older church, bits of which are exposed. Inside the Cathedral stands a clock, about five meters tall, that rings in selected hours with a performance by little automatons: a dove descends to tell the Virgin she’s pregnant, an angel moves his arm, another rings a bell, and a rooster flaps its wings. Not much activity, truth be told, for such a big clock, but it’s hundreds of years old and still keeps excellent time.

The heart of town is the “Presqu’île,” a peninsula formed by the Saône and the Rhône, and there you find the Beaux-Arts museum, in a former convent. Its statuary collection isn’t impressive, and they’ve crammed it into an old chapel that wasn’t open this trip; but the collections of antiquities and paintings are dazzling. As is so often the case, I’m frustrated that the paintings I like best are not those that have been reproduced as postcards, and this museum has very few books for sale: if you like a picture, you have to keep coming back — or troll the Internet, as I did, to find an image. (Because of course you aren’t supposed to photograph the art for yourself.)

The painting seen above is Francesco Campi’s The Ricotta Eaters, and it’s one of the most arresting I’ve seen. It looks for all the world like a candid snapshot that somebody took at a rowdy party — excepting of course that it was painted some 300 years before photography was invented. The natural expression and realistic detail are wonderful, and though the painting is Italian, it really captures the spirit of Vieux Lyon, where the silk-weavers, or canuts, enjoyed a soft white cheese, or cervelle, mixed with herbs and garlic. (It’s on the menu at every bouchon.)

The center of the Presqu’île is the Place Bellecour, which is dominated by an equestrian statue of Louis XIV. During the Revolution, angry mobs were tearing down any such statues they found, but some clever person put up a sign on this one: “Masterpiece of Lemot, Sculptor and Lyonnais.” The appeal to civic pride worked, and the statue was spared. The fateful message has been carved into the base of the statue now, so that future revolutionaries may take heed.

Just behind the city hall is another big square, the Place Terraux, with its fountain. If the sculpture looks familiar, there’s a reason: it’s the work of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty.

The opera house is a pretty ingenious piece of architecture: instead of tearing down the eighteenth-century building, they built above it: the upper floors house offices and rehearsal rooms, with the dance-rehearsal hall running the length of the building, just under that arched roof. So far, so good, but inside, you feel as if you’re in the Death Star: everything is black marble and black wood, and with the exception of the bar, which still has its gilt and white-plaster ornamentation from years gone by, it’s not merely modern but futuristic. Not the world’s most inviting space, but the current general director of the Opéra de Lyon, Serge Dorny, is keen to open up the place, to make it more relaxed and accessible. He does this with varied repertory and popular prices — as he explained to me, “Going to the opera is more like going to the movies” — and opened a restaurant, so that people come to the opera not only on nights when there’s a performance. But one bit of community outreach that he hadn’t planned goes on every evening in the arcade out front: kids practice their skateboarding and break-dancing.

So that’s a little bit of Lyon. I’ve been there three times, and I hope to go again. It’s a terrific place.

NOTE: During the Terror, Lyon was known as Ville-affranchie, or “Emancipated City.” The name is nowhere to be found in present-day Lyon, and I had to look it up on Wikipedia.